A proposal to jumpstart the long-sought-after but elusive Westside Bypass highway has picked up a proponent in freshman lawmaker Rep. Richard Vial.
But his proposal is meeting lukewarm support, or outright opposition, in Washington County, which lies at the heart of the ambitious scheme.
Vial is a Republican whose district includes Sherwood, King City and Tigard's River Terrace area. His House Bill 3231 would allow cities and counties to create a special district to do the planning, and to figure out the funding, for a new freeway that would loop around the west side of the Portland metro, taking traffic off Interstate 5 south of Portland and then reconnecting with a highway — perhaps Highway 26, north of Hillsboro and Forest Grove — somewhere in Washington County.
The bypass also could be the state's first toll-funding highway.
There is no map for the proposed highway, though Vial has said it could loop from Interstate 5 (heading south-to-north) and run roughly through the middle of Washington County, around Newberg and the Beaverton-Hillsboro area, before crossing the Columbia River into Clark County, Wash.
For the plan to work, Vial admits he needs the support of Washington County.
"If someone steps up to do this, it'll probably be Washington County leaders," Vial said.
But strong support for the proposal in Washington County may be difficult to come by.
Andy Duyck, chairman of the Washington County Commission, said other transportation priorities must take center stage during the 2017 legislative session.
"The Legislature needs to focus on a statewide package to address three major bottlenecks in our region, including Highway 217, the I-5-Rose Quarter area and I-205," Duyck said. "Continued job growth and economic recovery depends on making improvements in these areas. Our approach also needs to include transit, bike and pedestrian options as part of the solution."
Much of the leadership in the Legislature is focused on creating a comprehensive transportation package this session. Such an omnibus bill likely would address some or all of those same priorities — not a complicated and expensive bypass.
Washington County Commissioner Dick Schouten is more strongly opposed to Vial's proposal.
"This has the potential to be completely out of control," he said, adding, "Bad project, bad process."
That's because the bill, as written, would allow the new highway to cut through existing cities, or to be placed outside the metropolitan area's urban growth boundary — beyond which such a massive construction project normally would be prohibited.
"This could override zoning by cities, by the county, by Metro. It could slice through rural reserves. It's likely it would involve eminent domain," Schouten said, ticking off his concerns.
Eminent domain is the process by which a government can buy land — without or without landowners' consent — for major construction projects.
Vial disagreed, saying the proposal wouldn't overrule the urban growth boundary or local zoning plans.
He, too, said his proposal should wait in line behind a major transportation package from the 2017 Legislature.
"I've said from the beginning: No. 1, don't interfere with the transportation bill this session," he said.
Instead, Vial said, he wants to set the table for a Westside Bypass district in the future.
Schouten also has concerns about the most controversial element of the proposal: making it a toll road.
Vial said one of the options he wants considered is finding a private company to build the bypass; making it a toll road; then letting the company keep any money generated by the tolls, to be used for highway maintenance and for profit.
He said Colorado has been experimenting with this model.
Schouten said it is more likely the proposed special district would attempt to build the bypass with bonding capacity — which would reduce the amount of transportation bonding for other projects.
"This thing could cost $12 billion to $20 billion?" Schouten wondered. "That would take funds away from transportation projects like improvements to (Highway) 217 and the Rose Quarter. And those have to be our priorities."